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The Knock Becomes the Walk On

The Knock Becomes the Walk On

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Saturday night in New York, during the CBS NFL Today pregame show, leading to the Tennessee Titans & Baltimore Ravens playoff game, live to a national audience of 22 million, for the first time in the 57 year Hall of Fame history of delivering the news to a nominee that he was now a Hall of Famer, President, and CEO David Baker walked on the set at 7:52 pm ET to tell a stunned Bill Cowher he was the 327th Pro Football Hall of Famer from the 29,000 who have played, coached or administered the game.

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It was a seminal moment in sports television history and NFL history.

Then on Sunday in Los Angeles, during the NFL Fox Sports halftime segment of the Seattle Seahawks & Green Bay Packers playoff game in primetime in front of 38 million viewers,  David Baker again “Walked On” the set to surprise and inform Fox talent Coach Jimmy Johnson that he would join his four Fox Sports announcing teammates that were already in the Hall, with his election as the 328th Pro Football Hall of Famer. Having known that Bill Cowher was surprised the day before in the CBS pregame show, there was an anticipation that Jimmy would also be informed during the Fox pregame show. But by waiting until halftime, the moment was so unexpected that Jimmy cried and was shaken as the Fox studio technical crew erupted with cheers.  

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Back to back seminal moments in sports television history and NFL history.

The national reaction was enormous, “Top Ten All-Time TV moments” was trending on social media, and it was the Monday coverage on all the national morning shows. President CBS Sports Sean McManus called it “one of the coolest moments in the history of CBS Sports.” Baker was named “The Santa Claus of Sports” and a CBS staff called him “David Baker the Memory Maker.” Bleacher Report called him “The Most Wholesome Man in America.” See more here.

Since 2016, David Baker has been “Knocking on the Door” of each new Pro Football Hall of Fame class, although not live, but taped and first sent out on social media to millions of viewers. Seeing the Hall of Famers, their families, and their friends explode with pent up anticipation when they hear the knock, followed by a friendly giant that is David Baker, welcoming the newest member to the Hall “It is with my great pleasure to inform you that you are coming to Canton as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where we will preserve and honor your legacy for you, your families, and forever as one of the great men of character and greats of the game” resonated with America. This is the new and better  “National Clearinghouse Sweepstakes” moment that Ed McMahon made famous because everyone in America already knows well that the recipient is one of their football heroes. Still, now, he will forever be a Hall of Famer.

Now the knock has become the live “Walk On” in, a national must-see TV magical moment. The story of how the Hall reached this point is one of intrigue, unimaginable changing of circumstances and coincidence that will probably never happen again for a live “Walk On” to occur. Or will it?

Let’s start with this concept, suggested to President Baker by Hall of Fame Selector and nationally renowned sportswriter Rick Gosselin five years ago looking ahead to the 2020 Centennial year. The Hall has only 328 Hall of Famers from the 29,000 that played the game, coached, or administered the game. It is a blessing and a curse. The most prestigious and exclusive honor in all of the sports, yet with a rigorous selection process that selects only 4-8 Hall of Famers each year, there is a bottleneck of many great players will have to wait a long time to get in.

The concept was, “Could there be a way to make an exception in the Centennial year?”  There was a precedent in the first year of the Hall in 1963; there the inaugural class of seventeen. Working closely with the Hall’s Selection Committee and its selectors, a plan emerged to create a select Centennial Blue-Ribbon Panel to elect ten senior players, two coaches, and three contributors.  Deliberations began in the fall of 2019, and in mid-December, a “slate” of 38 finalists for the 15 potential Hall of Famers emerged.  The Blue Ribbon Committee would vote the 15 new Hall of Famers in on January 8th, 3 weeks before the Super Bowl election of the five 2020 Modern Day Finalists, who are voted on and announced on the same day with the taped Knock on the Door and a taped walk on NFL Honors together on Saturday night before the Super Bowl. The key is that all 15 Finalists are together in the Super Bowl City, so when the vote is final on Super Bowl Saturday, they are all together waiting in their hotel rooms for the “Knock on the Door.”

That would not be the case for the Centennial 15 when the final vote was held in Canton on January 8th vote. There we 38 Finalists versus 15 for the Modern Era, and many of the nominees were deceased. So when to make the announcement and how could there be a “Knock on the Door” for those living players that were elected. Many plans were discussed, including the idea to knock on the door of the Centennial 15 Hall of Famers,  one day at a time from mid-January up until the Super Bowl. The HOF team would have the daunting task of locating where the living honorees were, as well as the deceased, but if the knock were to be a surprise, find a friend or family member who would keep the secret, to let us know a time and place to do the knocks. The decision for the final vote on the Centennial 15 was held at the Hall on January 8th, so Hall’s team would have less than a week to sort it out. 

It became evident that with the best intentions, this plan was unwieldy. The Hall then reached out to its media partner NFL Network early in January, and it was decided to announce the Centennial 15  on NFL Network’s Good Morning Football January 15th, one week after the vote. Keeping the results a secret was a must.

The Hall oversees the voting process of Hall of Famers. One of the procedures put in place is that when the voters make their final vote, none of them know the final result with only the 3 Hall staff members and the accounting firm knowing the final result. When the envelope was opened at 7 pm Wednesday, January 8th, in the Coaches category, appeared Bill Cowher and Jimmy Johnson, both analysts on the two of the most viewed NFL pregame shows, the NFL Today and Fox NFL Sunday. What fate, what an incredible coincidence. With already the original thought of doing knocks on the doors, could there be a way to let this surprise be on national television since the Hall of Famers were on those national television shows? How would CBS and NBC respond on such short notice for the upcoming NFL Playoffs on Saturday and Sunday, January 11th & 12th, before the January 15th Good Morning Football Show? Could there not be a live surprise, walk-on? How could it be done; how could it be kept a secret? 

There was CBS with a Saturday game in primetime and Fox with a Sunday game early evening into primetime. Also, how would our partners at NFL Network react to losing two marquee announcements for the January 15th show? The first call was to NFL Network, who understood the possibility of a massive audience for the live walk on, but rightly asked for the Wednesday show to be promoted as part of the deal. With that in hand, calls were made Wednesday night, January 8th, to the heads of sports programming for Fox and on Thursday morning, January 9th to CBS, both of whom embraced the idea and passed it along to the show producers to work on logistics and secrecy.

The first challenge was Hall President/CEO David Baker, already highly visible for his size and many television appearances. He had to keep out of sight and out of anyone’s phone camera range in New York and Los Angeles. The Doorman knew at both hotels were instructed not to mention seeing him to anyone. Keep him out of the hotel lobby, leave by a side or back door, when he got to the CBS and Fox studios find the right empty hallways. He was Undercover Talent.

The other problem was his producer, George Veras, the Hall of Fames Executive Producer, had produced the NFL Today on CBS, and he had to survey each location ahead. When he went to the NFL Today Studios, he would surely be recognized by his former colleagues. A cover story was developed that he was in town to visit his granddaughter and came by to see his friend on the set of The NFL Today.

Veras came in at 1 pm Saturday for the CBS Sports building walkthrough; Baker arrived later at a hotel in New York at 3 pm that he had often frequented when he visited the NFL Offices around the corner so that the story could work if anyone saw him.

The two of them ate at a Korean salad bar at 6:00 pm, left the eastside of Manhattan at 6:30 pm and were in position on West 56th in the back of the CBS Studios. At 7:15 pm a runner led them to a predesignated position for an audio engineer to mic up the President of the Hall under sworn secrecy. Still, the first “oops” happened when they were down the hallway behind the two of them were walking Bill Cowher’s wife, Veronica, and his daughter Meagan. It turns out that CBS knew they were in town and told them the event was happening but only at 5:30 pm when Bill was already in the studios rehearsing. They were now to be part of the live walk-on after Baker entered the set in the show’s fourth segment. 

The plan was for Baker to walk out where Phil Simms (who was told moments before) and Cowher were analyzing teams on a large video screen. Cowher’s back was to Baker, so he would not see Baker as the television audience first saw David walking onto the set.

Cowher was so stunned that he first told the Hall president, “this can’t be happening,” and he shouldn’t be here, but as Baker started to leave, Cowher pulled him back.

The rest you can see for yourself:

As the reaction around the country exploded, several outlets began to speculate that Coach Jimmy Johnson was next on the Fox set in Los Angeles as Baker and Veras were flying there Sunday morning. Baker is from California, his son Ben works with Fox Sports for Nascar, so the chances of someone seeing Baker and now with the Cowher knock, it would be easy to figure out why he was there. The Fox plan had been for the pregame, but Fox producer Bill Richards called Veras about a half-hour before the pickup at an off-site hotel to inform him that Fox was moving the walk on to halftime, for a larger audience and to throw off the suspicions that a duplicate pregame ceremony would take place.

Unfortunately, David Baker was in the hotel lobby for the pickup for the pregame scenario, and sure enough, a fan spotted him and wanted a photo. Baker, who always lets fans take a picture, for the first time politely declined.

The Fox plan was like CBS’s, drive to the back of the building loading dock area, mic up the President of the Hall, and have him walk down an empty hallway right onto the set.

Although it wasn’t a “Knock on the Door,” the “Walk-On’’ was similar. The nominee was surrounded by friends and family and didn’t know if he was going to be chosen. The luck and coincidence were the Cowher’s and Johnson’s friends, and family were the television production crew, and their audience was millions of viewers. They heard David Baker’s same message as all other Hall of Famers, the hug and the final phrase, “You are finally going to Canton!”

Written by George Veras, Chief Operating Officer & Executive Producer.

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